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Making the Grade

The NCAA’s NIL policy assures that college athletes will profit from success.

Written by Eugene Stockstill

In case you haven’t noticed, the wide world of NCAA sports has morphed into something a whole lot wackier. You can thank NIL for that.

Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) refers to a policy that allows student-athletes to profit from, well, their names, images and likenesses. The NCAA gave its official OK to it last year.

“We are excited to launch this robust program and put our student-athletes in an optimal position to advance their personal brand to its full potential,” said Keith Carter, Ole Miss Vice Chancellor for Intercollegiate Athletics. “The student-athlete experience is ever evolving, and with (new) technology and the dedication of our staff, we are expanding our commitment to developing our student-athletes with the education and resources to take advantage of these new opportunities.”

On a practical level, NIL means something like this: Athlete A will find money in his pocket because a social-media ad of him drinking a can of Coke went viral.

“Social media endorsement is one way for an athlete to capitalize on NIL,” said Ronald J. Rychlak, the faculty athletics representative for Ole Miss. “But there are others, like personal appearances.”

It seems fair to suggest that NIL will sharpen the competitive edges across the country. And with Ole Miss’ title in the College World Series this summer, MSU’s 2021 CWS title and Ole Miss’ women’s national golf title last year, that competitiveness does and will include Mississippi.

But as the country adjusts to college sports with NIL, conspiracy theories, ill will and big-time political posturing abound. Consider the following:

- Alabama head football coach Nick Saban, possessor of more national football titles than all Mississippi universities combined can hope for, scored headlines when he accused Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher and Jackson State’s Deion Sanders of buying players. Both denied it.

- SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey and U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker have pounded political pulpits for congressional oversight of the NCAA, but such a possibility could not begin until next year, at the soonest. Mike Leach, Mississippi State’s outspoken head football coach, went on the record as calling a Congress-run NCAA a horrible idea.

- NIL pairs with the digital trade portal, which went online a few years ago, and has made it way easier for athletes to leave one school for another by bringing required paperwork into the 21st century.

That last bit causes extra-special worry. Here’s a worst-case scenario: A top-grade QB quickly exits one school to net a more lucrative future on a competitor’s campus. Or even worse: Incoming student-athletes wind up choosing schools based on preexisting NIL arrangements. Get the picture?

The potential for corruption is nothing new in the realm of sport. Recall the line from the great movie “Eight Men Out,” when the honest manager of the 1918 White Sox sits on the witness stand and answers a prosecutor, who has asked him if gamblers were in the game when he played. “Sure,” he said. “How are you going to keep them out?” NIL’s scale for potential malfeasance is just larger.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with this,” said Dr. Paul Batista, Texas A&M’s faculty athletics representative and a professor of sports management, during a public Zoom meeting about NIL issues. “It’s a little bit scary.”

One of the first questions to ask, then: Does this make the student-athlete a thing of the past?

“The collegiate model will always be different,” Rychlak said. “The athletes will still be students. They will still be striving for grades and for degrees. They will still have dedicated support staff at the universities helping them accomplish these things. For many, of course, athletics will be the key to them getting that degree. And most of them will not make a career out of their sport.”

As for checking nefarious influences, most universities have official written prohibitions against paying a player in exchange for a specific school commitment. You can find a written description of Ole Miss’ NIL policies on the school’s athletic department website.

The list includes guidelines for agents, attorneys and exchange students, as well as a specific prohibition of NIL payments for so-called “vice advertising.” The fourth item on the list reads as follows: “NIL compensation may not be provided in exchange for athletic participation, performance or attendance at Ole Miss.”

Most states had already passed NIL-related legislation before the NCAA adopted its new policy, but since then, some states (like Alabama) have done away with laws regarding Name, Image and Likeness. Mississippi’s NIL law remains in force and, among other things, allows schools to take part in student-athletes’ NIL negotiations.

And as the all-important opening of this year’s football season encroaches, fans should do what they can to relax and trust that a sense of normalcy will return in time, Rychlak said.

“The state will do well,” he said.

THE 411

NIL: The phrase stands for Name, Image and Likeness, a current NCAA policy that allows certain promotional compensation to student-athletes. The NCAA adopted this policy last year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a student-athlete’s commercial marketability. STATE

NIL LAWS: Most states in the country adopted NIL-related legislation before the NCAA’s new policy went into force. Some states have since done away with these laws. Mississippi’s remains in place.

TRADE PORTAL: This refers to an online trading system that went online a few years ago and makes it much easier for students to transfer from one school to another.

TRADE WAIVERS: In Division I sports (Ole Miss, MSU, Southern Miss, JSU, Alcorn State, Mississippi Valley State in Mississippi), student-athletes may transfer once to another four-year NCAA school and are eligible to compete immediately, provided they are academically eligible and the previous school does not object. This one-time transfer exception does not apply to baseball, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, football or men’s ice hockey. Student-athletes in these sports must file for a waiver to be able to compete without sitting out a season.

PAY-FOR-PLAY: This phrase refers to the process of a student-athlete being offered money or benefits in exchange for a promise to attend that school. Prohibitions against this sort of arrangement are standard procedure in universities in the United States.

FAR: This stands for Faculty Athletics Representative. The FAR, appointed by a school president or chancellor, does several things: Oversees the athletic department’s rules compliance, serves as a liaison between the school and the athletics department, represents the school in conference and NCAA matters, and makes sure the school balances academics and athletics.

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